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2:21 AM Wed, Feb. 20th

Battle for more Internet users takes to the skies

In October 2012, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook had achieved 1 billion users. Five months earlier, Facebook went public with a value of $104 billion, making it the largest valuation of a newly public company to date.

That year, Facebook brought in just over $5 billion in revenue and added another 100 million users.

Investors were happy, but hungry. They wanted more, and Zuckerberg was poised to deliver. His biggest hurdle: Facebook's market saturation.

In 2013, nearly 2.5 billion people were active Internet users. Facebook by then had 1.3 billion users. After taking into account the 538 million users behind the Great Firewall of China, the number of uninitiated Internet users who could utilize Facebook was dwindling fast.

Facebook was running out of room to grow - not because of a lack of popularity, but because they were running out of active Internet users on Earth.

Google was having similar issues. As a search engine, Google had a dominant market share of 69.55 percent at the end of 2013. Their biggest rival, Baidu, thrives in China because Google is blocked. Baidu has a market share of 16.77 percent, leaving Google just a fraction of Internet users to convert to their search engine.

Both Google and Facebook realized that growth in their core product would require one of two things: Breaking through the Great Firewall of China and competing in that market, or trying to get the planet's remaining 4.5 billion people connected to the Internet.

Working with China would cost them a fortune, so both companies made moves to connect "The Next Billion" users to the Internet.

The social branding has been in the works for years. Society has adopted the Internet to the point where connecting is viewed as a basic human right rather than a privilege. The economic and social benefits of a connected community are so clear and drastic that the Internet is now used as a fundamental building block in the developing world., a global partnership that is working to bring the Internet to those who don't have it, specifies three hurdles to overcome: Affordability, efficiency and a working business model.

Facebook (one of the partners of and Google already had the business model set: More Internet users equal more potential users of their services. To make Internet access affordable and efficient, they both turned to the skies.

Google last year announced Project Loon, a network of weather balloons that broadcast 3G data speeds to fill in coverage gaps, provide access to rural areas and bring people back online after disasters.

The balloons float in the stratosphere, well above any commercial airplanes. They travel on the different wind current layers, rising or descending so that the balloons can go where they need to go.

Each balloon is equipped with a box that contains the antennas needed to broadcast the signal and enough solar panels to keep them powered. The balloons are cheap, last for weeks, and as long as there are enough in the air at any one time there will be an active network for people to connect to.

Google successfully tested the balloons in New Zealand last summer. The company intends to launch an uninterrupted ring of balloons along the 40th parallel sometime this year.

Facebook's Connectivity Lab went aerial as well. Zuckerberg announced in March that the team went on a recruiting spree, getting engineers and experts in aerospace and communications technology from groups like NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and Ames Research Center.

They also went after drone companies such as Ascenta, which helped engineer the world's longest solar-powered unmanned aircraft.

They use the same concept as Google. These drones can stay in the air for months or years at a time and are capable of broadcasting an Internet signal to the masses. Networks of drones can communicate with each other and the ground, blanketing wide areas for long periods of time.

When Google acquired Titan Aerospace (another drone startup company) this month, the battle for the next billion users became much more competitive.

In the sprint for more users, Google and Facebook are looking to the sky for solutions. While they do that, cheap computers (such as the Raspberry Pi) and mobile phones are making it much more feasible to own an Internet device in the developing world.

The pieces are in play for everyone to benefit from the impending Google vs. Facebook battle in the skies.